Guide to the Mel Rosenthal photographs, 1975-2008
Collection consists of 80 black-and-white photographs taken by native New Yorker Mel Rosenthal, stemming from two documentary projects. The first documents the destruction by arson of an entire South Bronx neighborhood in New York City in the 1970s, with images of burned-out buildings and inhabitants who were forced to abandon their homes. The second project depicts Arab Americans, including men, women and children of Syrian, Egyptian, Moroccan, Algerian, Jordanian and Palestinian descent, living in New York State during the last decade of the 20th century and the early 2000s. Scenes include images of children, professionals, neighborhood life, and the religious lives of Christians, Muslims, Greek Orthodox, Maronites, Jews and Coptics. The gelatin silver prints measure 11x14 and 16x20 inches. Also included are some publicity items for exhibits and a workshop on documentary photography, and an audiocassette recording of Rosenthal speaking at an exhibit opening in 2004. Acquired as part of the Archive of Documentary Arts at Duke University.
- Collection Number
- Mel Rosenthal photographs
- Rosenthal, Mel, 1940-
- 3 Linear Feet, 6 boxes
- David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library
Collection consists of 80 black-and-white photographs taken by New York City native Mel Rosenthal, stemming from two documentary projects. The first documents the destruction by arson of an entire South Bronx neighborhood in New York City in the 1970s, with images of burned-out buildings and inhabitants who were forced to abandon their homes. The second project examines the daily lives of Arab Americans, including men, women and children of Syrian, Egyptian, Moroccan, Algerian, Jordanian and Palestinian descent, in New York State during the last decade of the 20th century and the early 2000s. Scenes include images of children, professionals, neighborhood life, and the religious lives of Christians, Muslims, Greek Orthodox, Maronites, Jews and Coptics.
The images in the Rosenthal collection formed part of two separate exhibits at Duke University showcasing Rosenthal's work, available online. The gelatin silver prints measure 11x14" and 16x20". The South Bronx matted prints measure either 16x20" or 20x24".
Also included are some publicity items for exhibits and a workshop on documentary photography, and an audiocassette recording of Rosenthal speaking at an exhibit opening in 2004.
Acquired as part of the Archive of Documentary Arts at Duke University.
Access to the Collection
Collection is open for research. Reproductions may only be made for personal use; all other uses, including publication and exhibition, require permission from the estate. The original audiocassette recording is closed to use; a copy must be made for access.
Researchers must register and agree to copyright and privacy laws before using this collection.
All or portions of this collection may be housed off-site in Duke University's Library Service Center. The library may require up to 48-hours to retrieve these materials for research use.
Please contact Research Services staff before visiting the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library to use this collection.
Use & Permissions
The copyright interests in this collection have not been transferred to Duke University. For more information, consult the copyright section of the Regulations and Procedures of the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library.
How to Cite
[Identification of item], Mel Rosenthal photographs, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.
Comprises 33 black-and-white photographs documenting the destruction in the South Bronx by fire, 1975-1983. Most matted prints measure 16x20" (boxes 1 and 2), but two prints measure 20x24" (box 3). Original captions have been retained as well as narrative comments by photographer; captions supplied by library staff are in brackets.
I was born and grew up in what is now called the South Bronx. After twenty years away, I returned in 1975, to a neighborhood in ruins. The sturdy well-constructed buildings that had once housed tens of thousands of people were gutted and burned out.
New York's Department of Housing Preservation and Development may have been competing for the Potemkin Prize last summer , when it announced a plan to mount decals in the broken windows and empty frames of all the hundreds of burnt-out and sealed-up buildings that line the Cross Bronx Expressway. The decals would portray neat drapery, flowerpots, and window boxes, intimations of comfortable and happy domestic scenes. That way, commuters who passed through the Bronx en route to Westchester, Long Island, or the Connecticut executive belt wouldn't have to be upset by the sight of the misery that lines their way.--Marshall Berman. Roots, Ruins, Renewals: City Life After Urbicide,Village Voice, September 4, 1984
Potemkin was a Russian statesman who had an impressive, fake village built along the river bank in preparation for a tour by Catherine the Great. The village consisted of just the facades of houses which were removed after she passed by and then reassembled further down river. Thus as Catherine traveled by, she would see many pleasant villages with happy peasants and think all was well in her kingdom.--Mel Rosenthal
One of the high school students told me she was going to be a dental assistant. The other two said they wanted to be models.
The South Bronx is certain to be one of the areas hardest hit by the President's [Nixon] decision to impose austerity on domestic programs presumably in order to pay the brutal costs of a senseless war [Vietnam]. Combined with state budgetary restraints the outlook is bleak, for the South Bronx is dependent on public resources, not just for the quality of life, but for life itself.--Mayor John Lindsay, New York Times, January 18, 1973
We should not encourage people to stay where their job possibilities are becoming daily more remote...Our urban system is based on the theory of taking the peasant and turning him into an industrial worker. Now there are no industrial jobs. Why not keep him a peasant?--Roger Starr, Real Estate Weekly, February 9, 1976
It can only be compared to war, what happened here, and we lost that war.--Father Louis Gigante, Associated Press, October 5, 1977
The African American churches, many of which had been synagogues, were a bulwark against the encroaching disintegration.
The kids played baseball using the parking meter as second base. The runner was safe.
He said, "Want a ghetto shot? I'll give you a ghetto shot!" And he drew a bayonet from under his jacket.
It was the day that the last building on Bathgate Avenue was being sealed up before demolition. The city marshals were evicting all the remaining families. Nelson's family was being sent to an apartment where no dogs were allowed. He knew that if the dog ended up in the pound, he'd be "put away." We couldn't find a home for the dog. Many of the people who were being evicted were supposed to go to a "welfare hotel." There were no other options. People were scared and depressed.
Your business will have room to grow in the Bronx. You don't have to worry about spiraling rents, lack of space, congested streets, parking shortages, and a host of other problems that plague expanding businesses elsewhere. The Bronx has prime real estate that is affordable. No inflated prices like Westchester, New Jersey, or Long Island. The City of New York is planning to sell prime parcels of real estate for retail, light manufacturing, office and industrial development. These are properties which the city has held from sale until the market was right. Now the market is right. You can own real estate in thriving, busy commercial centers, industrial enclaves, and growing residential areas.--The Bronx: Business's Best Kept Secret, Published by the Bronx Marketing Project, NYC Department of General Services, 1985
The last building left standing in the neighborhood was on the East 173rd through 174th Street block. A few days after this picture was made, the building was bulldozed and the people who lived there were sent to shelters and single room occupancy hotels.
When I looked for her to give her the picture, her building had burned and she had moved.
Duplicate of image 29, but this print is signed by Rosenthal.
Contains 46 photographs, 25 16x20" (with one 11x14") gelatin silver prints (box 4) and 21 11x14" gelatin silver prints (box 5), that were part of the exhibit “Arab-Americans: American By Choice.” The images document the daily lives of Arabic-speaking Americans, many of whom were in New York State at the time the shots were taken. The individuals portrayed include men, women, and children of Syrian, Egyptian, Moroccan, Algerian, Jordanian and Palestinian descent. Scenes include the religious life of Christians, Muslims, Greek Orthodox, Maronites, Jews and Coptics.
Ahmed was from Alexandria, Egypt. He decided to go back to Egypt in September of 2002 to get married. His friends, including the man who bought his cart, thought that he would not be able to get a visa to come back to the United States. They were correct and as one said, Another man lost.
One of the reasons he left Jerusalem was because of the 1967 war. He told me that he believed that the war between the Israelis and the Arabs would never end. He is holding a photo of him holding his baby daughter. Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, N.Y., 1998.
She is the daughter of Essa (see image 35) who is holding her (as a baby) before the family left East Jerusalem
Men observe the call to prayer, March 27, 1999. The occasion is Eid al-Fitr the three-day Festival of Fast-Breaking at the end of Ramadan.
Men observe the call to prayer, 2001. The occasion is Eid al-Fitr the three-day Festival of Fast-Breaking at the end of Ramadan.
I showed the Rabbi a letter of introduction from the Museum of the City of New York which said that they had commissioned me to photograph for them an exhibition about Arab American life in New York. They told me that I was in the wrong place because they were not Arabs. They insisted that they were Sephardic and should be called that. I pointed out to them that they spoke Arabic and were from a country which spoke Arabic and therefore could be considered Arabs. They weren't convinced, but it turned out that they did not have the tenth Jewish man that makes a ritual possible in the Jewish religion and there I was, the tenth man. So I got to celebrate Chanukah and to photograph them also. Later because so many people took umbrage to being called an Arab I changed the letter to say that I was photographing Arabic speaking people and thus avoided problems. As with the case of many of the Christian Arabic speaking people, many seem to equate "Arab" with being Muslim and they did not want to be associated with that identification. September 11th made that even more pronounced.
The Church in Park Slope is a Greek-Melkite Catholic Church and the icon is St. Theodora. The people at the Church when I spoke to them about why I was photographing there they like the told me that they were not Arabs and were annoyed that I called them that. I asked them what they called themselves and they said they were Phoenicians. Having learned from the Moroccans, I said it was fine, and that this was a project about Arabic speaking people. I looked up Phoenicia in an Encyclopedia and they had a drawing of where Phoenicia had been and it was what now is Syria and Lebanon.
The school has students whose parents come from all of the countries in the world with Muslim populations. The students are segregated by gender and most of the curriculum is in Arabic since that is the language of the Koran. Boys and girls are forbidden to speak to each other. If they do the boy is chastised, but the girl may be put on probation or expelled. When I was photographing there the text being studied in the English class was Exodus, by Leon Uris.
I was told by one of the teachers that the school has many students who come from Arabic speaking countries. Muslims, Christians, Jews and people who profess no particular religion all coexist well there.
A 11x14" duplicate of RL10011-P-44.
A fitting at Four Golden Needles, a dress shop in Bay Ridge Brooklyn which was created and owned by four Palestinian women. The woman trying on the dress is from Lebanon and the dressmaker is from Egypt. The material was designed on the computer and then printed out on the textile machine in the background. The dress was shipped to a woman getting married in Chicago.
Celebrating the wedding of Sandra Hajjaj and Komenby Kharoufeh. The groom's mother is trying to keep the playing children from colliding with the cake.
Widdi's is known throughout the Arab American community as the place to have your party after Ramadan, your wedding, your confirmation party, your fund raising party, or your political meeting of the community. Gold coins are traditional wedding presents which are pinned to the bride's dress at the marriage ceremony. It is common for the women to wear strings of gold coins minted in the Mid-East around their heads and their waists on special occasions such as this wedding. One man when I asked about it said that we don't trust banks.
He is the spitting image of one my cousins when we were younger. As I looked around the room filled with Palestinians it struck me that many of the people there looked like my own relatives and I thought how come they can't see it. They are from the same family. When will they see it. When will the killings stop!
I liked this photograph, but it was not in the exhibition of my work, because the museum directors thought it inflammatory. I thought they were being overly cautious, but it was soon after the attack on the towers and many people were upset and so I lost the argument.
Over a thousand Christians, Muslims, and Jewish Arab Americans made clear their desire for peace and their hatred for violence. Unfortunately, though the Churches, Mosques and Synagogues sent out many press releases, none of the press came to report about this event.
Debbie Almontaser, an educator and activist, carried a photograph of her son wherever she went. He was in the National Guard patrolling the area around Ground Zero and couldn't go to the Peace Vigil, September 16, 2001. After September 11th a number of people in Brooklyn Heights called her names and tried to get her to take off her hijab. She started to carry the photograph of her son who had been called up to the National Guard on September 11th. She told the people that were harassing her that he was in the National Guard patrolling the area around Ground Zero and that she was as patriotic as they were. She told me that the harassment was so bad that teachers at the public school where she worked had to escort her to school and back. Shortly after, she resigned from teaching there.
Muhaideen (with camera) was one of my students who became one of my friends. He received his Bachelors Degree from the State University of New York/Empire State College. He was a photography major who was a carpenter years ago in Nazareth, and is now is a successful photographer and lecturer on Palestinian and Islamic issues and lives in Vermont. Yosef, lived in Jerusalem and Jordan most of the time and made a living by coming to Brooklyn and selling tiny Korans on the streets and in the mosques. When he was in Brooklyn he slept in one of the Mosques. He died in 2004.
There was a march of more than a thousand people of all denominations against violence in Brooklyn Heights. The press did not carry it to any extent.
Her pregnant patient is from Aden, 2004.
Mr. Widdi told me he was mayor of the Palestinians.
It is known for its Mid-Eastern fine foods.
The gold coins are traditional wedding presents which are pinned to the wife's gown. The groom's mother is keeping playing children from colliding with the cake.
The gold coins are traditional wedding presents which are pinned to the wife's gown. The groom's mother is keeping playing children from colliding with the cake.
Two Iraqi women sit on steps at a protest.
Papers in the collection include an audiocassette of Rosenthal's talk at Duke University on October 7, 2004, at the opening of the exhibit “Mel Rosenthal: Photographs from "In the South Bronx of America,"” as well as a brochure for the exhibit and an advertisement for a New York workshop “Empire State College: Documentary Photography in New York City.” Exhibit pamphlets from Refuge: The Newest New Yorkers and Arab Americans: Americans by Choice are also included.
Original media closed to use; listening copy must be made for access. Please contact the Rubenstein Library staff before coming to use this collection.
Original recording is closed to use; listening copy must be made for access. Please contact the Rubenstein Library staff before coming to use this collection.
Mel Rosenthal (1940-2017) was a documentary photographer based in New York City and director of photographic programs at SUNY-Empire State. He is best known for his images taken in his old neighborhood of the South Bronx, New York City. He published In the South Bronx of America in 2000. His work also took him to Vietnam, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Tanzania, and he remained interested in refugees and how they managed life in the United States. He died in New York City in November 2017.
- Culturefront (serial) (Rubenstein Library, Duke University)
Click to find related materials at Duke University Libraries.
- Arab Americans -- New York.
- Arab Americans -- Pictorial works.
- Documentary Photography -- New York
- Photography of immigrants
- Refugees -- New York
- September 11 Terrorist Attacks, 2001 -- Influence.
- Bronx (New York, N.Y.) -- Pictorial works
- Bronx (New York, N.Y.) -- Photographs
- Bronx (New York, N.Y.) -- Social conditions.
- New York (N.Y.) -- Photographs
The Mel Rosenthal photographs were acquired by the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library as a purchase in 2004 and 2008.
Processed by Joanne Fairhurst, January 2013.
Accession(s) described in this finding aid: 2004-0150, 2004-0339, 2004-0340, 2008-0092, and 2012-0070.